Mac Hits Another Home Run

Apple's long-awaited new operating system makes Windows look dingy

In designing new software, especially the operating systems that control a computer's basic functions, developers face a difficult choice. Incorporating the best and newest technologies requires changes that can leave the owners of older hardware and software in the lurch. The alternative, which lets you keep using your favorite software, can limit the adoption of new and useful features.

Microsoft Corp. has preferred the evolutionary course of maximum compatibility, especially in consumer products such as Windows 98. Rival Apple Computer Inc. has been much more willing to make radical breaks with the past. This difference in approach will be starkly displayed in the second half of this year, when Apple and Microsoft both release new operating systems. Windows Millennium Edition (or Windows ME, as Microsoft wants it to be called), is a modest overhaul of Windows 98. But Apple's Mac OS X, as in "10," breaks with 15 years of Mac software for a new digital heart that, in effect, makes the Mac OS a user-friendly version of the Unix operating system. OS X has a dramatic new look and feel.

Millennium's most significant change is the elimination of a mode required to run old DOS games, a move that should make Windows boot up faster and run more reliably. Millennium is designed to work particularly well on new PCs that lack older accessories, such as floppy drives and serial ports.

It also has features that protect critical files from deletion or overwriting. And it is supposed to sleep and wake up more reliably, though I've heard that before without seeing much improvement. Millennium will ship on most new consumer computers by yearend. But based on a test version, it may not offer enough to make it worthwhile to upgrade existing PCs.

OS X, which is intended for everyone from first-time iMac buyers to graphics-arts pros, is a horse of a different color. It's the fruit of Apple's 1996 acquisition of Steve Jobs's NeXT Software. OS X is based on the same core code that powered the NeXTSTEP operating system, as well as Linux and other forms of Unix. This will cure some shortcomings of the Mac, especially its inability to run multiple programs simultaneously and efficiently.

The more obvious change is a complete redesign of screens for displaying information. They do for the user interface what the iMac did for hardware design, including liberal use of the iMac's now-familiar blue-and-white color scheme. One novel feature: Windows that allow objects that would otherwise be hidden beneath them to show through, making it easier to understand the organization of the desktop. Buttons that control windows change color and light up to indicate their function as the cursor passes over them--for example, becoming a glowing red light to show that clicking will stop an operation or close a window. More important, Apple has adapted Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat technology to produce crisper graphics and more readable type.

The intensive use of graphics requires a lot more processing power than older computers can muster. So OS X will run only on Macs powered by a G3 or G4 chip. Computers purchased before mid-1998 will be stuck with older versions of Mac's operating system.

In addition, all Mac software will need an overhaul to take full advantage of OS X. Apple is working to ensure a smooth transition, but Mac owners will have to upgrade lots of software. Apple has not made OS X available for testing, but based on demos, I think the better performance, stability, and ease of use will be worth the trouble.

Sooner or later, Microsoft will have to bite this bullet. Windows 98 was supposed to be the last version based on the legacy of MS-DOS. But to get a promised consumer version of Windows out on time, Millennium was designed as a stopgap. In a year and a half or so, Microsoft will have an all-new consumer version of its business-oriented Windows 2000, but the company has not decided what the features will be--or how far it will go to maintain compatibility with older hardware and software.

Meanwhile, Apple is poised to regain the software-design leadership it earned with the original Macintosh. It's not clear how much ground this will gain for Apple, but the renewed competition can only benefit consumers.

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